Words By Jonny Grave, Photos from the final Church Night at The Wonderland Ballroom by Clarissa Villondo and Nicholas Karlin
About five years ago, I was forcibly introduced to Linsay Deming. I was 21 years old, and playing on a Sunday night at the Wonderland Ballroom. Michael Jantz, a friend and fellow singer-songwriter, was saying his farewells to the Wonderland crew. After years of playing and hosting every Sunday, he was passing the torch on to Ian Walters. The way we decided to send Michael off was by playing all night long, sharing songs back and forth, turning the first floor of Wonderland into a giant open mic.
This was before D.C. music scene grew into what it is now. Before the Red and the Black and the Palace of Wonders knocked down the dividing wall, and became the Red Palace. Before Dave Mann’s Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie. Before Listen Local First. Before Ted Garber and Jonathan Fischer’s row on Twitter about the state of live music in D.C.. Before Alex Tebeleff and his Do-It-Together mentality. Before the Sea Life was playing every last house concert in town. D.C.’s music scene was a little different five years ago. It wasn’t as brilliant, and it wasn’t as fun.
Wonderland Ballroom’s Sunday night shows acted as a hub for singer-songwriters. We’d share ideas and new songs for the first time. Michael Jantz was always spurring on new ideas, and some unflinching criticism. I learned a lot at Wonderland, and met a lot of friends. Jantz, who may or may not have consumed several beers that evening, pushed me and my guitar toward the “stage” (read: corner of the floor in front of the jukebox), telling me “you should go play with Linsay Deming now.” Linsay and I had never met until just then, and asked what the hell we should play together. We played a Mississippi John Hurt song, and became fast friends after that.
Years later, I’m at Wonderland again, upstairs this time, watching my friend in a beaufont hairdo and a fanny pack, passing out whiskey and tater tots, saying “blessings and light” to the audience.
Church Night began over the summer of 2013 with a positively hilarious concept for a variety show: instead of a series of dis-jointed acts, introduced by a host that has nothing to do with the show at all, Landon and Linsay decided to pull an entirely different show together: turn the variety show into a church service. There’s a cohesive theme and running gags. There’s a communion. There’s hymns. No comedian is ever introduced by a “and here’s your next performer this evening!” There’s a backstory. It’s a show. It’s vaudeville, and it’s a riot.
I couldn’t imagine what I was getting myself into when I played my first Church Night “service.” I grew up in the Episcopal Church, was confirmed by 14, and became a guitarist for a folk eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral by 15. Though my views on religion and faith have changed since my teens, I still identify the Church as being instrumental in how I grew up. Last year, on a hot August evening, upstairs at the Wonderland Ballroom, I was having flashbacks.
It turns out most of the audience was in the same boat– I told the crowd I wanted to try something, and declared “The lord be with you,” and was met with a loud, overwhelming “and also with you!” I knew then Landon and Linsay had done something special with their show. Instead of the typical Band-A/Band-B/Band-C format, my friends had created an immersive environment that, for lack of a better expression, touched people in a number of ways.
The Reverend Doctor Stevedore Maybeline Bidet, esq. is a bombastic, loud, sexual deviant. Kathy Piechota, youth minister, is a converted prostitute. Randy St. Oates, their “altered boy,” is a booty-short-sporting mute. These aren’t just stage names adopted for fun, with costumes they’ll wear once in a blue moon. These are characters, with complex personalities and back story. Church Night conveniently straddles the line between satire and sacrilege. And every show is meticulously planned, beautifully written, and irresistibly funny.
I was floored by the turnout last Wednesday. Sixteen months ago, Church Night had a decent crowd, mostly drinkers and talkers, but still appreciative and clapping at the jokes. Only a few months went by, and all of a sudden, the room started getting packed. They developed a following. Then, they started charging a cover. At the Wonderland Ballroom. No one ever charges a cover at the Wonderland Ballroom. I was in disbelief. I was shocked even further to hear they started selling separate tickets– general admission, and seated.
Last Wednesday, on their last night at Wonderland Ballroom before their residency begins at the Black Cat, the crowd was rapt. Not just appreciative and applauding, but attentive and present. It was more than just a packed house. It was more than every seat sold, and every inch of floor occupied by standing feet. It was seeing all of the hard work over the past year and a half coming to fruition.
And now, they’re off to the Black Cat for a monthly residency. Church Night has done in less than two years what most acts in the District couldn’t dream of doing in four. This gives me hope. The city has changed over and over again over the past five years, since I met Linsay. The music scene first flourished, then exploded. In this town, there are now more opportunities for gigs, more venues, and more potential to survive as a professional musician than the days of Duke Ellington. Church Night is leading by example.
While I may reserve some dregs of envy and jealousy of their success, I am unabashedly proud of what my friends have accomplished, and in such a short time. I cannot help but wonder what their future shows might bring, how their crowd might grow and change, and how they will influence other shows in the District. It’s likely the brilliance and fun of Church Night will be around for awhile. I’ll be in line for Shots and Tots as often as I am able.